“The Flavor Blooms in Warmth”: On Judith Baumel’s “Thorny”

July 6, 2022

The poems in Judith Baumel’s Thorny revolve around or return to four points of reference: her family/ancestors; her love of Italy; her Bronx neighborhood and, beyond that, New York City; and pastoral poems from Mediterranean antiquity, notably by Theocritus and Virgil. These preoccupations naturally overlap. When shepherd-poets Tityrus and Meliboeus trade memories, geography and war, times and places elegantly dovetail, chiming in the nuanced pastoral call and response of Virgil’s Eclogues or Theocritus’s Idylls (“After the Battle of Long Island, the Battle of Fell’s Point”). Memories of Baumel’s forebears inevitably open up references to the Holocaust. Passeggiata is a key trope for this poet; a stroll in Palermo, “ice cream sandwich / in hand,” reveals history’s palimpsest: “the three alphabets of via Calderai / — Italian, Hebrew, Arabic …” (“Passeggiata and Memory in Palermo.”) Nothing is separate, nothing is fenced off from anything else, either in the stratified topography of cities or in the poet’s vision.

Allusion is too pale a word for what Baumel can’t help doing in poem after poem. “On the Deaths of Boys” refers to Van Cortlandt Park, Kingsbridge, the old Pelham cemetery, and New York City’s potter’s field, Hart Island. But lines from Milton’s “Lycidas” make an effortless cameo: “What boots it with incessant care? Who hath reft my dearest pledge”? In Baumel’s hands, pastoral elegy isn’t superimposed or willfully invoked; it’s part of the process, part of the picture. The presence of these venerable, still generative forms and words enriches the present as it enlivens the past.

So a crucial quality of Thorny is saturation. Like the complex foodstuffs, with their attendant smells and tastes, to which Baumel is so achingly attentive, the poems are composed of a congeries of ingredients that enhance each other but also demand that you follow the time-honored rules of consumption, as in “Spuntinu in Gerace”:

And I taste your oil on this bread?


No. This you eat with beans. The flavor blooms in warmth, in just-simmered fava. Don’t put salt.


Successive waves of invaders turned occupants leave their marks on a culture, from its architecture to its religion to its cuisine, as well as on a genome, as the poet observes in “Passeggiata and Cena in Erice”:

These came and left their stones: The Sicans, Elymians, Phoenicians, Athenians, Carthaginians, Romans, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, Bourbons. These came and left their Y chromosomes […]


What binds the many flavors and modes of Thorny into a coherent whole isn’t chiefly the layered complexities of flavors and references, or the geographical, chronological, and cultural range of the poems. Rather it’s an intensity of tone, an insistent bearing of witness. Baumel is not so much a storyteller, though bits of stories certainly surface, as an animated tour guide, intent on pointing out ruins, connections, palimpsests — features we might otherwise well have missed. “Though no one commanded us to go, / the world of my father is almost entirely gone,” she writes in “Passeggiata and Memory in Palermo.” Listen, the poems say over and over; look. Pay attention. So much is waiting to be discovered and recovered. Any random stroll, any newspaper story opens up a partially deciphered world, like the one in “His Knowledge of Having Done So”:

The woman in the bag had a name. It took
detectives days to furnish their account —
a son, a boyfriend, compression of the neck.
The rags reported what I can’t remember now.


The attention that poetry both fosters and demands is also a binding spell (Baumel tips her hat here to Theocritus), which is also a recipe using “common pantry items”:

Magic Wheel, drag to me Palermo and Pelham Parkway.


Barley, bran, bay leaf and wax. As they sizzle and burn
and melt, so may the earthly borders dissolve, disappear.


I love that the invocation to Baumel’s complex yet homely blend of ingredients in this, “Binding Spell with Inyx, Rhombus and Common Pantry Items,” is also her invocation to a very distinctive Muse. No one else is writing quite like this, taking these chances, brewing these concoctions, combining her elements this way, let alone with such urgency.